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What Is Jazz Harp?

By Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Updated May 23, 2024
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Jazz harp is music played by harpists in the jazz genre. Traditionally, people have considered the harp primarily a classical instrument, although it also is popular as a folk instrument. Some harpists, however, believed the percussive nature of the harp lent itself well to expanding to other genres.

Jazz harp got its first real start with the efforts of harpist Casper Reardon in the 1930s. Known as the "swing harpist," Reardon was originally classically trained, serving with organizations such as the Cincinnati Conservatory and the Philadelphia Orchestra. When some of Reardon's students exposed him to jazz, however, he loved it and thought the harp was capable of playing in the jazz style. He developed his own way of playing jazz on the harp and, through the height of the swing era, forged the way for other jazz harpists, playing with prominent jazz musicians such as Jack Teagarden.

The efforts of Reardon allowed other harpists to challenge the notion that the harp was limited to classical music, particularly Adele Girard. By the 1960s, other harpists such as Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane found ways to expand jazz harp even further, pushing the boundaries of jazz-related genres such as bebop. The recordings of these artists remain some of the best examples of excellence in jazz harp playing.

One of the major changes jazz harpists brought to harp playing was the amplification of the harp. Modern jazz harpists use one of two types of harps for their playing. The first is acoustic-electric harps. These harps are similar to regular harps, but they can be amplified with electric pickups if desired. The second type of harp used in jazz playing is the fully electric harp. These harps are a major diversion from regular harps in that they have no soundboard and thus must be amplified to produce sounds loud enough for audiences to hear well.

The amplification of the harp was important for jazz harpists for two reasons. First, it allowed jazz harpists to break the volume barriers acoustic instruments face and to compete with the often explosive volume of full jazz ensembles. Secondly, it gave jazz harpists the ability to alter and distort the sounds they made with the harp, similar to the way electric guitars do. With this new palette of sound, jazz harpists found an entirely different way to solo and support other players.

When played acoustically, the harp has a clear, almost bell-like tone often described as ethereal. When played electrically for jazz, however, the sound of the harp is almost comparable to the sound of a steel drum, although the delicacy of the harp sound is strangely still preserved. It often takes listeners some time to adjust to this dramatic, nearly calypso flavor, but people often come to love the new sound once they are familiar with it.

One of the limitations of jazz harp is that there are relatively few harpists compared to players of other instruments such as the violin, as orchestras generally only use one or two harpists at most. Most schools of harp concentrate on classical music and technique, because there is a much greater demand for this style of harp playing. Subsequently, there are even fewer harpists who excel in the jazz genre.

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